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November 12, 2002

Revenge of the Ground Game

As this TNR article details, one key to GOP success this year was reemphasizing personal contact and get out the vote efforts, a lesson the Republicans learned from Democratic success in 2000. And apparently did better this year.

And here is where mobilizing the base matters for the Democrats, not just the base that will turn out to vote, but the smaller base of activists who will man the phones and walk the precincts to pull others out to the polls.

Poll-driven appeals to "swing voters" is all about the simplistic lines used in campaign ads, although as this article point out, most undecideds are really party partisans who can be mobilized with regular partisan appeals.

At first glance, independents seem to be a real political force. In a
Post-ABC News poll conducted in mid-July, 32 percent of those sampled
identify themselves as Democrats, 33 percent as Republicans and 31 percent
as independents.
But when asked which party they lean toward, the proportion of true
independents plummets from 31 percent to 6 percent. The rest of those
independents scurry to one party or the other, with about half saying they
lean toward the GOP and the other half tilting toward the Democrats.
As for the hard core of real undecideds, the advice by experts is to mobilize the partisans; if they are in motion, they will haul their more apolitical friends to the polls with them.
[The] advice to candidates looking to entice that tiny fraction of the
electorate that are true political independents: don't waste your time or
money. "I would encourage candidates not to play to them. Because they tend
to jump on bandwagons, to follow tides. . . . You're better off to work on
getting your weak partisans and your leaners," the true independents will
likely follow.
Looking around the country, in places where the Democrats had a strong ground operation, liberals like Tom Harkin and Frank Lautenberg breezed to victory. And where the GOP built up a partisan army on the ground, as with Ralph Reed's mobilization in Georgia, a moderate war hero like Max Cleland couldn't save himself.

The game of swing voters is really about contempt for the voters, as if they are simple sheep being led by buzzwords. In the abscence of real discussion and debate, that may be what happens. But if you really believe in progressive politics, it's easy to understand that if bumper sticker politics won't get swing voters to the polls, you need to mobilize your partisans to reach out personally, to explain in greater depth why it matters if people vote, to pull their friends and family to the polls based on the broader view of politics than a 30-second ad.

It's sometimes counter-intuitive that a more partisan message can lead to greater appeal to so-called "moderates", but that's only if you assume a media-only political culture. But a more honest discussion of politics mobilizes a stronger person-to-person culture of debate and mobilization. Moderates can then be convinced that a "partisan" position is actually what they believe, once you get away from the media buzzwords and distortions. But you need your partisans mobilized to get that message to moderates to even have a chance to convince them.

The Democrats failed to fire up the imagination of their own supporters this year. It's hardly surprising that those supporters couldn't fire up their less political friends.

Posted by Nathan at November 12, 2002 08:19 AM

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